I should preface this with the caveat that one should never go into watching a movie with high expectations. Let yourself be blown away. Don’t let a critic do your thinking for you.
By far my favorite film of 2016 yet. This film is a piece of art, beautifully crafted at every turn. Sure, it may be slow–one of the slowest films I’ve ever seen–but once you put a piece of yourself into the film, that pace does it justice. Once you get past the slow pace, which does not seem so apparent once you’ve immersed yourself into the story, this subtle yet powerful tale reveals itself to be a curious, intellectual, and philosophical puzzle that doesn’t show its hand until the third act. It takes advantage of the audience’s assumptions and teases their blindness to the obvious. It boasts very deep philosophical theories that are applicable to scientific theory. It is one of the smartest films I think I’ve ever seen. Although honestly only a cinephile will truly appreciate its art and composition, I don’t believe that all is lost for the casual viewer. All of the bad and mixed reviews, which by the way are very few by comparison, all harp on the same shallow observation and lazy crutch of this film film being ‘too confusing’ or ‘too unorthodox of a story’, when really it is quite straight forward by the end, and to be quite honest I just think the simple-minded critics that did write so poorly of the film were disappointed in the lack of action and spectacle. But for now, let me break it down for you.
To summarize the plot without spoiling anything, Arrival is the latest film by visionary director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners), along with writer Eric Heisserer (Lights Out, The Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street) and scored by Johann Johannson (Sicario, Prisoners, The Theory of Everything). It follows a world-renowned college professor for the language arts, Dr. Louis Banks (played by Amy Adams) who is approached by the military to communicate with the extra-terrestrial beings that have landed their ships in twelve locations across Earth. It is through this endeavor that we learn more about her, her partner Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), as well as Louis’s memories and how they relate to her mission. That’s as in-depth as I’m willing to get without spoiling things for people because this really is a great work of art.
Aesthetically, the Cinematographer Bradford Young (of Selma, and slated to shoot the Han Solo anthology) did a great job of pushing the emotion of a shot as well as the motifs of the film. I’ll give one instance of a caged bird–it is quite symbolic of Dr. Louis Banks and is used to relate her to her memories and fate, and it is depicted through both the inclusion of a caged bird with her when she interacts with the aliens, as well as many shots where Louis is pushed up to the edge of the frame with no looking space, making the shot quite claustrophobic. Small things like that in addition to the minimalistic style really ground the storyworld and make this tale feel tangible–it reflects our modern life both visually and contextually, with the inclusion of world politics, college life, and people’s dependence upon news media outlets. The sound REALLY enriches the experience and bolsters the emotion of a scene, providing a newfound gut-wrenching awe in the midst of the beings later named Heptopods. With very simple soundscapes and very intentional use of silence, the auditory experience highlights everything the audience should be feeling, and brings you into the realm exactly how a good movie should. Furthermore, the color grading isn’t distracting nor are any of the shots disorienting (although I did notice some chromatic aberration).
With the kind of story this movie entails, I don’t want to get into structural critique because it will ruin the movie for those who haven’t watched, but feel free to contact me personally if you are really interested.
But alas, this movie is not perfect, just like any movie ever made, and so now is this time to talk about the things I didn’t really like. Which are few, and I would consider nit-picking. In terms of the inciting incident, it wasn’t exactly clear what led Forrest Whittaker’s character to change his mind on letting Dr. Banks come to ground zero after his initial refusal, all we get is some comment about sanscript as Whittaker informs us he’s going to approach someone else for the job. On another note, I’ve heard a lot of gripes about Jeremy Renner’s character Ian and his somewhat useless 2-dimensional quality, and really I disagree, at least for the most part. I do very much wish they had more development of his character, maybe one or two scenes with some exposition on his life before the arrival, but in terms of the character he definitely had his own thoughts, feelings, and actions which I think fits the bill for the bare minimum of a 3-dimensional character. But the main thing I did not like about the movie, and maybe this is enough to knock it from a 10/10 to a 9.5/10 I’m not quite sure–but the entire tagline, marketing, and direction of the film are all building the suspense on “Why are they here?” Well, we get an answer, but in my opinion its a very shallow and meaningless answer, nearing the characteristics of a MacGuffin, but not quite (sorry Rene Rodriguez) but I believe this is a redeemable flaw, because I would argue the film is not really about why the Heptopods are here at all. This movie is about Dr. Louis Banks from start to end. Do I think the tagline was a little bit of a click bait? Definitely. Did the film capitalize on that click bait and make it seem like that’s what the movie is about? Potentially.
But in conclusion I firmly believe this is a sci-fi Oscar contender, because it is such a dramatic movie of classic proportions–its a character piece in the context of sci-fi, not a VFX-laden, action-riddled blockbuster. I think I’m going to give it a 10/10 because I think this director is getting closer and closer to pure gold, and this movie is the evidence.